Posts Tagged ‘heritage conservation’

Lessons from Buffalo

October 30, 2011


Prudential/Guaranty Building, Buffalo
Last week the National Preservation Conference in Buffalo surpassed attendance records with over 2,600 attendees, and the host city really won the hearts and minds of the preservation population. The Mayor showed up at several events and the local paper had an article EVERY DAY about the preservation conference. People were so amazingly nice and welcoming (you can see Canada from there, so maybe the nice rubs off). Not too mention the fact that Buffalo is an architectural treat, from really great works by H.H. Richardson to Louis Sullivan’s most exuberant skyscraper and the fantastic Darwin Martin House by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Darwin Martin House, Buffalo
Plus great Art Deco, Beaux Arts, and even Modernism featured in Yamasaki’s mid-1960s M & T Bank Building, which the bank owners were touting to the Trustees on Saturday night.

There was a lot to see and do in Buffalo, and there was a lot of discussion about the Trust’s new Preservation 10X plan, the details of which are still in formation. I attended a very interesting panel “Repositioning the Preservation Message…And the Messenger” that included Mary Means, who invented Main Street back in the 1970s, Randy Mason, one of the leading scholarly thinkers in the field, and Elaine Carmichael.

This panel was indicative of the new directions that heritage conservation has taken in the 30-plus years since MainStreet was invented. Mostly those directions involved a Main Street-like focus on community revitalization, but increasingly the movement in the field has been to reevaluate some of our oldest preconceptions, inherited and often unquestioned assumptions. Randy Mason has been one of several scholars (also including Michael Holleran, Max Page, Dan Bluestone) who started to write a critical history of preservation a little more than a decade ago.

Mason had three points in Buffalo: 1. The word; 2. Visibility and 3. Quantification. These points very nearly parallel Stephanie Meeks’s excellent speech last year in Austin at the National Preservation Conference, when she called for the movement to move away from being the ones who say no, increase visibility, and increase funding. Let’s look at the three:

The Word – At the 2009 National Preservation Conference Don Rypkema said we need to start calling it heritage conservation. I echoed that point in a blog and an article in 2010. Words can be important. Moving to heritage conservation creates a deft communications coup by abandoning the word – historic preservation – that so many see as regulatory. Mason noted that because the word ends in “ist” it conveys a sense of righteousness and a defensiveness that is a legacy of the 1960s and 70s when preservation was not a community value.


But it is now. As Elaine Carmichael said: Y’all won. Most people accept the conservation of important buildings and districts as a community and civic value. Why do we continue to act like victims? Why are we still defensive? From tourism to retail and residential revitalization, heritage conservation has proved to be a viable economic development and urban planning method.

Perhaps it is the late 20th century phenomenon that David Lowenthal wrote about so eloquently, where everyone aspires to a legacy of oppression and a heritage of victimhood. But in a real sense, we can hold our head high because saving buildings has proved to be a vital planning and development tool again and again, across North America and the world.

But we do not – as Stephanie Meeks noted – have the visibility. This was also Mason’s second point. We need the building conservation version of that 1970s ad that made everyone care about natural area conservation, you know, the one where an Italian-American actor dressed like a Native American looks at a polluted river and sheds a tear? Meeks’ talk this year focused on marketing to a wider audience – 15 million potential local preservationists. If we reach even a fraction of that audience, we will be doing very well indeed.

Mason’s third point also tracks closely with the Trust’s thinking in that he focused on making economic arguments, appropriate since he worked with the Brookings Institution to compile the most comprehensive bibliography of economic studies in preservation/conservation. For over twenty years the numbers have been consistently positive in charting the economic impacts of saving buildings, downtowns and districts, when measured in property value, jobs, taxes, tourism, dollars staying in the community or any of a number of other measures.

So why haven’t we reached a wider audience? Elaine Carmichael had a challenging answer which took the “stop acting like a victim” admonition a step further. Not only do we need to stop being righteous and absolutist, but we need to give up our binary thinking. It is not a matter of win versus lose, black and white, right and wrong. There are shades of grey everywhere. Is it wrong to preserve a façade if that is the only portion of the building that is significant? Is it wrong to say one building is more important than another, or that some of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – which haven’t been examined in a generation – need to be rewritten?

Carmichael’s greatest challenge was simple: Are we open to public conversation? Are we willing to hold our ideals a bit more loosely in our hand, trust that the next generation gets it (as I said here back in May) and promote a building conservation that is open to negotiation with the public as a whole and not just attorneys and planners and building managers and media types?

Can we open the discussion of identifying and evaluating significance for the purpose of managing change to the full public? In an internet age, the answer should be “of course we can” and the Partners in Preservation and This Place Matters programs of the National Trust have been demonstrating for five years how this conservation conversation can happen and have an effect.

Change is difficult. But it is always necessary.

Community Planning in Heritage Conservation

October 17, 2011

I recently became Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, an organization I have been involved with for almost four years. GHF has patented a Preservation by Design® approach to saving World Heritage in developing countries. The approach follows to some extent the disciplinary boundaries we regularly bridge in teaching historic preservation: Design, Planning, Conservation and History. For GHF’s Preservation by Design®, the four are Planning, Conservation, Community Development and Partnerships. The emphasis on Community Development and Partnerships is key to the modern practice of heritage conservation.

One of the things my international practice in heritage conservation has taught me is that many other nations draw a sharper line between heritage conservation and community development. If conserving historic buildings is seen as a form of development, it is usually only conceived in terms of tourism development. Rarely do you find the understanding we have developed in North America that saving historic buildings is a vital community development and empowerment tool. A case in point is our new Preservation 10X plan of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which makes “Sustainable Communities” the first of four thematic foci for the Trust going forward.

Five years ago I was asked by the State Department to consult with preservationists in Tustan, a fascinating archaeological site in the western Ukraine. My primary (and primal) suggestion was to do a community planning workshop with local residents to determine how they might appreciate the site, how they might benefit from the site, and how the interpretation and potential development of the site could impact the community in a positive way. The suggestion was well received, but it was entirely foreign to the concept of the “heritage conservation” sector.

Even many western European nations define heritage conservation as a distinct sector; distinct from planning, distinct from architecture, distinct from economic development. In our current work in Lima, Peru, we are attempting to introduce urban agriculture to the Cercado, the World Heritage Center of Lima. In so doing, we toured the area with the lead urban agriculture planner and the architect responsible for the Cercado’s historic fabric. It quickly became apparent that these two officials didn’t speak the same “language” when it came to the built environment. Our added value, as outsiders, is to bridge their bureaucratic and cultural boundaries and find new synergies.

Our culture values innovation and cross-boundary thinking, but many societies – I would hazard most societies – take a more defensive approach, safeguarding various disciplines. Even the term “heritage conservation sector” sort of freaked me out at an international conference in Sweden in 2007. Why would the sector define itself – and in this case its financial metrics – in contrast to other sectors? Isn’t that ghettoization? I have always seen the choice to conserve the historic built environment not as a luxury or specialty, but an essential component of community development.

There is a peculiarly American approach to problem-solving that more easily shrugs off cultural norms and categories. It is why we have Silicon Valley (where the GHF is located, perhaps not coincidentally). Perhaps it is the relative thinness of our cultural history; it is certainly an American pride in ‘thinking outside the box.”

At the same time, building conservation as a community development tool dates back to at least the advent of “the new preservation” in the 1960s in terms of historic neighborhoods and the 1970s advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program for commercial districts. In the United States, tax advantages for preservation have been around a full 35 years, so the recognition of this aspect of heritage conservation is deep here.

My most direct experience with Global Heritage Fund’s Preservation by Design® approach has been in Pingyao, which I have written about extensively before here and here. In remote archaeological sites like Chauvin de Huantar in Peru and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia, the opportunities for community development are more limited, but no more so than Tustan. Santiago Giraldo of GHF has worked with the community on the hiking trail that takes you to Ciudad Perdida and hosts a variety of businesses that cater to tourists. The challenge, of course, is to insure that the development of the community is not solely dependent on tourism.

My work in Weishan, China with the Center for US-China Arts Exchange and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is emblematic of this. The goal there is to conserve historic buildings and landscapes and intangible heritage to serve BOTH tourism development AND the local community. So far, as I reported to International ICOMOS conferences in 2007 and 2011, the goal is being met. The North Gate, a 1390 national landmark in the heart of Weishan Old City, is now being used for community events and music as well as serving as a tourist destination. Thus heritage conservation serves both transient and permanent communities.


Ultimately, what we are doing when we preserve buildings is preserve community. One of the great mischiefs of High Modernist architecture and planning (which led to the modern preservation movement) was that it believed you could design a community from scratch and that it would function better than an existing one. One of the great strengths of heritage conservation is that it recognizes that communities can only be sustainable when they preserve and make functional those elements of their heritage which they value.

One day a 27-year old preservation planner pulled his yellow Nova over in Humboldt Park, Chicago, and wrote this down:

“Landmarks serve a community by providing a point of reference, an element of identity, and a source of pride. The community serves landmarks by providing for their protection, interpretation and enhancement. Our built environment is a vital reference for our past, and a foundation for future growth.”

Kid was right.

Connecting the Past

May 9, 2011

I am just back from the US/ICOMOS conference “Why Does the Past Matter” at University of Massachusetts Amherst, sponsored by the University’s center for Heritage and Society. I gave a paper on our work in Weishan, as a contrast to the touristic monocultures that often engulf heritage sites in China (and made several new Chinese friends in the process).

Students working in Weishan, 2009

The conference features many archaeologists amongst its collection of heritage professionals and scholars, and I saw quite a few excellent papers and made quite a few new friends while rekindling old connections like Henry Cleere, an esteemed English colleague whom I spent a week with in the Ukraine in 2006.

Henry Cleere and Vasyl Rozhko at Tustan, 2006

One of the papers related, surprisingly, to me and to this blog, but it also related to the work of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Jeffrey Guin of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training in Natchitoches, Louisiana gave a talk on Communicating Heritage Online. He apparently has read this blog for some time (Thank you!) and has quite an excellent site devoted not simply to disseminating heritage conservation information and insights, but fomenting conversation amongst heritage conservationists. The site is Voices of the Past and I have linked it here.

wicked cool killer Brutalist campus center where we held the conference

Jeff also opined that the National Trust’s “This Place Matters” program, where people submitted photos of the places that matter to them, was just about THE BEST use of online media by a heritage conservation organization to date. I always thought so, and I will promote doing it more as we go forward, along with the Partners in Preservation effort supported by American Express. I wrote about This Place Matters in Forum Journal last year, noting both its ability to connect directly to people and determine what buildings, sites, structures and landscapes they care about – without mediation by the professionals, as well as the nature of the resources they chose, which tended to stray far from the architectural purism favored by geeks like me. Most importantly, the contest created a level of community engagement (and democratic process) that all professionals in the heritage conservation field should envy.

the ultimate New England church in Lee, Massachusetts

2012 and the End of Linear Time

January 18, 2011

The world is quite rapidly becoming a single place with a single, albeit multifaceted and sometimes contradictory culture. Yet the culture shock is alive and well and modes of apprehending the world often remain bound in the tunnelvisions of particular cultures.

When we plan our School of the Art Institute of Chicago student study trips to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, we account for culture shock in the pacing and length of the trip, because sometimes you just gotta have a Starbucks or a Snickers bar no matter how much you desire to broaden yourself.

But what got me thinking about this is all the hoo-haa about 2012 and the end of the world in the Mayan calendar. This is a pop culture meme here in the West, but of course it is based on a thousand-year old (and largely vanished) society. And this meme is MASSIVELY misinterpreting the meaning of 2012 to the Mayans by looking at it from an entirely modern Western point of view.

Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies, like the Hinduized societies of India and Southeast Asia, had a circular view of time. You have all seen the Aztec calendar: it is a circle. If you analyze the measurements of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you realize the building is a deliberate – and literal – attempt by Suryavarman II to communicate the fact that he was ushering in a new golden era – a kirta yuga. This golden era exists within a circular conception of time – Vishnu is the pivot between which the devas and asuras churn the sea of milk to create the world, a theme repeated through the generations of temples at Angkor. In the Shaivite tradition, Lord Shiva has a dance of death and destruction – the world ends and it begins again. Time is circular.


Now, in the West, despite a dominant mystery religion that promised destruction and rebirth (Christianity), the West went with a singular story of destruction and rebirth rather than an ongoing cycle. The stewards of that tradition in the middle ages got obsessed with measuring time and invented clocks for prayers and by the time we hit the Renaissance we had decided that time is unidirectional, linear, and (this is the big leap) progressive. By the late 18th century this areligious concept had become gospel and monks like Malthus could measure and project the future with astonishing dexterity. About 122 years ago we further decided that this carefully measured time should be consistent from place to place so we would know whether or not the trains were running on time.

Our Western conception of history and our Western conception of a progressive future are two sides of a singular worldview. Without placing judgement on the value of that linear concept of time versus circular conceptions of time, you can already see the BIG DUMB in those who think the world is ending in 2012 because they are basically looking at a round peg from a square hole: the idea that the world ends in 2012 is not the Mayan idea at all but the Western concept of linear time misapprehending the Mayan.

What does this have to do with heritage conservation? Oh, it has EVERYTHING to do with heritage conservation. Tonight I will be guest lecturing for a preservation class at UIC and I will trace the history of our concepts of conserving buildings, from the idea of bringing buildings back to a state of perfection that never existed (Prosper Merimee and James Wyatt, 18-19 century England and France),

the idea of letting buildings age in time (William Morris and John Ruskin, 19th century England),

the concept of conserving buildings as artifacts set aside from the commercial and social everyday (20th century America)

and up to the ideas we have absorbed into our field in the last 15 years – namely that each culture must define the aspects of its physical and performative culture that it values and it must further (this was the genius of the 1999 Burra Charter) define the process of how that conservation takes place within that cultural context.

What conservation is cannot be defined in one way across cultures because it is OF culture.

Heritage conservation is a brilliant field because it abjures the one-size-fits-all solution for the particularized, individualized solution. There is no alienation of the commodity because every resource is different in history and social/cultural context. You avoid the absurdity of the 2012 confusion because the context is not fixed by preconceptions but must slide with the resource. There are no categories and no categorical solutions, but rather a process that allows each problem to be self-defined and solved in a manner without strict precedent.


Life and Death Heritage

January 14, 2011


On July 23, 1986 I attended the funeral procession/cremation of Tjokorda Gde Oka Sukawati, a prince and stepbrother to the last king of Ubud in Bali. I was traveling there (long story) and stumbled across the ceremony, which featured an amazing Pelebon procession in the Balinese Hindu tradition, including a bade, an 11-tiered pagoda tower used to carry the deceased to the cemetery,

A naga banda – basically a dragon vehicle, a lembu, the coffin in the shape of a bull (nandi), a swarm of people.

Now, the funeral tradition there and elsewhere is of course solemn, but it was also touristic. My camera lens caught the tourists lining up, even joining the procession, and local vendors using the occasion to sell t-shirts and the like.

When I lectured on Bali at the Field Museum in 1987 following the trip, I included my perceptions of the tourist side of the place, bolstered by an interview I had done there with Silvio Santosa, a native who had formed the Bina Wisata Foundation to help educate tourists about proper behavior, since they had a tendency to treat the place like Cancun during Spring Break.

Candi Dasa, Bali
What strikes me today is not the intangible heritage represented by the performance of the cremation ceremony or the challenges of keeping tourists from fornicating in ancient temples but the complex interweaving of tourism and heritage sites in general.



Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2008
I have the good fortune of serving on the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, which recently released a report “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” which details not only GHF’s efforts to preserve World Heritage Sites in the developing world, but also the complex layering of tourism, economics and heritage conservation that can save – or destroy – such sites.

Angkor Wat, 3rd gallery, 2001
When I began in this field in the 1980s, heritage tourism was the latest and greatest idea: get people to come see history – built, living, or otherwise – and they will pay for the experience, generating the income sites need to survive. I saw Arthur Frommer speak about how heritage tourists avoid places that don’t preserve their history and how heritage tourists spend more than other tourists. We used lots of oversimplified multipliers in those days to calculate the economic benefits of preserving historic sites for tourism.

Tien An Men, 2009
But in the last decade we have seen the effects of too much tourism. I spoke at an ICOMOS conference on tourism in the Pacific Rim in San Francisco in 2007, and that conference was inspired in part by the overabundance of tourism and the attendant wear-and-tear on historic sites, like the great temples of Angkor in Cambodia, which survived in the jungles for centuries and even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but are now beset by tourist numbers which exceed 2 million per year and looting of the more remote sites for the international art market. When I last saw Angkor 10 years ago the number was less than half that.

Angkor Wat 2001
Many of the challenges that Global Heritage Fund addresses as it seeks to build capacity for conservation are external to the heritage tourism economy: war, looting, and even the depredations of nature and climate.

Ta Prohm, Angkor, 2001
But many of the largest challenges are the tourists themselves. Macchu Picchu in Peru has gone from 420,000 visitors in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2009. Petra in Jordan has almost tripled to 900,000 in the last decade. Yet, at the same time, heritage tourism still represents a major economic engine for the developing world. The GHF report notes the dilemma: if the sites are simply exploited, they will be destroyed and cease to draw tourists. Macchu Picchu accounts for 90 percent of Peru’s tourism revenue. Part of the problem is sustainability planning: Peru has many other valuable heritage sites, but these have not been marketed, managed or developed. Planning at Angkor in the 1990s directed development to the outskirts of the site, but lack of controls has placed much private development in more sensitive areas. Moreover, despite the incredible value in heritage sites – GHF estimates $20-30 billion for the top 500 heritage sites – only a fraction of that revenue, $400-500 million, or 2-3 percent, is spent on the sites.

Coba, Mexico, 2006
The best projects work to train local officials, planners, developers and others in sustainable management and development practices. GHF’s project in the walled city of Pingyao, Shaanxi, China, is emblematic, and I had the opportunity to visit that site in 2008.



GHF has also worked to help Lijiang in China, which I cited as a bad example in my 2007 presentation, since the city was stripped of local authentic culture after becoming a world heritage site: the city’s buildings were preserved, but it became an ersatz tourist town: local businesses replaced by tourism shops, homes replaced by hotels. I called this catastrophic tourist development, since it replaces a sustainable and diverse local economy with a dangerously unbalanced economic monoculture.


Lijiang, 2008
Our work in Weishan, Yunnan, China over the last seven years with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange is focused on just this complex intersection: Heritage tourists want an authentic experience, not a commercialized stage set, which is what Lijiang is very like. Weishan has done a great job of preserving the real, everyday businesses along the Southern Silk Road that passes through the great 1390 North Gate and the Drum Tower. You can still see locals shopping for clothes, rice noodles drying on streetside racks, birds and jellies and coffins and shoes for sale, along with some antique shops and food stalls. The final chapter on Weishan is not written, but in 2007 and 2010 it is a model of sustainable development.


Weishan, 2009

Weishan noodle shop, 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich

noodles drying, Weishan 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich
Huge challenges remain: The international tourist market that appreciates authenticity is actually dwarfed by a domestic tourist market that is happy to visit the Chinese versions of Branson: artificially constructed sites with artificial histories and happy Happy entertainment. Authenticity is a challenging concept for most tourists, something I recall even when we used to work in Ireland in the Burren, where the great portal dolmen of Poulnabrone was surrounded by little tiny dolmens, built by tourists in acts of pure vandalism, destroying the delicate limestone pavement ecosystem to build little stonehenges that would fool the next tourist into thinking they were seeing a thousands-years-old structure.

Poulnabrone, Burren, Clare, Ireland, 2002
Again, my interest today is not in the misbehaving tourist as much as the economic context: heritage tourism is a boon AND a bust for historic sites and places seeking economic uplift. Heritage conservation is a huge expense AND a huge revenue source for countries at all levels of development. Economic development is a threat AND an opportunity – if done with long-term returns in mind for historic sites worldwide. It is not (I am tempted to say NEVER) an “EITHER OR” proposition but a “BOTH AND” proposition. The advantage the heritage conservationist brings to this challenge is quite simply the long view: we are not about the quick buck or the quick fix. We want to keep BOTH historic sites AND a productive local society for as long as we can.

Cashel, Ireland, 2002

The Next American City: A Response

November 29, 2010

By Vince Michael and Anthea Hartig

We regrettably missed Charles Buki’s Next American City speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin, but studied it and it is a provocative scorcher, as the self-described “community developer” no doubt intended (see for yourself at www.czb.org and http://www.czb.org/blog/2010/10/comments-at-the-national-trust-for-historic-preservation/). Buki congenially opens with his denouncing of the label preservationist, but goes on to share his valuable critique of our built environment – and of preservation’s seeming lack of care about community and over-privileging of architecture and its rehabilitation. We here writing don’t have the luxury of eschewing the preservationist label, although we are both active in the discursive movement afoot to change that label (see Forum Journal, Spring 2010, focused on “What’s Next for Historic Preservation,” in particular Donovan Rypkema’s headlining article, Michael’s and Muniz/Hartig’s pieces therein and the follow-up Forum On-Line discussion with Rypkema and Vince Michael.

Buki’s overall critique of our social built environment finds it Koyaanisqatsi-esque—an out of balance set of places in which interdependencies and interconnections have been lost. He also argued convincingly that distinctions between city and suburb are artificial and not helpful, especially in the wake of our efforts to rebuild such places through preservation, new urbanism, or even “old” urbanism, about which we couldn’t agree more, but for reasons different than his. Here goes.

Diversity

Buki’s stated theme was diversity, and how we fail to achieve it and incubate it in designing cities and suburbs. He argues, again convincingly, that diversity and complexity provide the underpinnings of true sustainability. We dug this aspect of Buki’s critique because it resonated with Jane Jacobs’ description of the city as a problem of organized complexity. Jacobs said the city is a biological problem, not a statistical (disorganized complexity) or chemical (two variable) problem. Emphasizing the point, Buki quoted Wendell Berry to reinforce the biological analogy; we’re with you so far, to paraphrase The Eagles.

Buki talked a lot about “monochromatic” developments and places, be they city or suburban, red or blue states. We tend to live with people who act like us, and more importantly – consume like us, understandable but regrettable patterns of human behavior that reduce diversity and thus true sustainability. He talked about the fields of Subarus and Volvos that characterized the Berkeley, CA cityscape and the Ford F-150s and four-story high crosses of the Amarillo, TX architectural ecosystem and it seemed his point was the we who resemble Berkeleyite’s self-righteousness, hail the concept of diversity while failing to live it, or live in it. We’re not sure about his point regarding Amarillo.

He argued, again persuasively, that city and suburb are artificial distinctions, which rings increasingly true. One of us lives in a suburb that has two subway lines and a full range of consumer activities within walking distance, and can show you Chicago neighborhoods that lie further from the center along commuter rail lines or highways with complete separation of residence from commerce.


this is a suburb

this is the inner city


Environmental Determinism

Buki’s strongest arguments had less to do with preservation and more to do with New Urbanism, and we suppose, Old Urbanism as well. He decried the urban designers “trying disentangle a suburban dystopia” who in “their aggressive self –confidence” have “misreduced the entirety of the challenge of the built environment to a problem no more complex than its new urbanist solution is one-dimensional.” It took a while to work it out, but we finally think what he said was that the solutions to community will not be found in the realm of design, nor in the realm of rehabilitation for the sake of such.

This comes back to Jane Jacobs charge that “the city is not a work of art” and that any attempt to treat it that way is “taxidermy. She was the first to see the flaw in environmental determinism whether it was Beaux-Arts or High Modern, in fact she was the first to see the functional equivalence between those apparently divergent forms. Both failed at complexity and diversity. She looked beyond design, as Buki is trying to do. And she was a preservationist, as we are.

But many have a narrow view of preservation, of heritage conservation. It is not about “skeletal remains” as Buki says, and even if it was, they are generally better skeletons in historic buildings than can be built today for all money in Dubai. There is an inherent diversity in an inherited environment that is almost impossible to plan for, nevermind design at-once for. A key layer to this inherited above-ground archaeology is our familiar past of the last half of the twentieth century.

In a witty but weak and unfair accusation, Buki fretted about the Recent Past, lobbing that “tomorrow’s challenges facing preservationists’ is “what label to put on what was built between 1946 and 1964, a period not generally known for much of anything not straight out of some Soviet architect’s pattern book.” Well, it is today’s challenge and the global heritage conservation community continues to respond well and intelligently for the most part. In fact, debates, tensions, and outcomes swirling around understanding and conserving the recent past and weaving it into a sustainable future might be illustrative helpful for Buki and his team. For as we collectively understand the critical importance of both the remarkable design contribution of a remarkable range of architects, from the Neutras to Lautner, from Wright to Rudolph, from Yamasaki to Ossipoff. And the movements, choices, changes that took place in those two decades following WWII remain completely significant.

Gentrification and the Problem of History

Buki illustrated the failure of diversity in preservation through an anecdote about rehabbing a house in Alexandria in the early 90s and going to get glass at a local smoke-filled hardware store, not Home Depot, and hearing how the old men there did not feel welcome at the new coffee shop. It was a freeze frame in the gentrification that is so often associated with preservation, an historical moment when the old-fashioned charm of Jane Jacob’s Hudson Street locksmith and deli owner coexist with the beatniks and professionals. That moment passes in time and it seems that soon the old business guys are pushed out along with the hipster artists who started the whole process, and the gentrified community becomes more and more monochromatic.

Gentrification happens in more places and more often WITHOUT preservation, but Buki’s point is worth considering. How can a heritage conservation movement embrace diversity when we are, in his words, aligned with Panera Bread and Barnes and Noble and addicted to Whole Foods? Buki asks for “a restored building not with a Starbucks or Peets, but instead a local vendor but whose product line and pricing structure renders the business completely inaccessible to the people who live in the new building’s shadow.” To assume that those/we preservationists don’t think or care about the end use and users of place is to rob them/us of the tap root of our thinking—the histories and stories of people in places.

Can this be achieved?

Well, there is a history problem here. You can’t craft a community freeze frame, not via some inorganic affordable housing policy or equally inorganic New Urbanist form that is dependent on environmental determinism finally working. Even preservation, which is a form of community development more than anything else, can’t stop time, and more importantly, doesn’t want to.

You can slam New Urbanists for creating high-style and/or old-timey versions of the gated community and preservationists for leaning too heavily on coffee chains to save their precious architecture. But how do you achieve diversity without stopping time? Can you keep the quaint, inexpensive “real” community at the moment you discover it, or is the process of conserving buildings really simply the same as improving buildings? And was that community truly diverse at the moment you discovered it and began the inexorable shift toward improvement? Is diversity simply a characteristic of a community in flux? Can you plan it? Can you design for it? Pay a consultant to analyze your lack of it?

We would like to push Buki’s point further – we want diversity in our communities, but design – not Old or New Urbanism, not HABS drawings or boulevard electroliers – is not going to get us there. The solution won’t happen solely in the realm of design. But it will happen in the built environment, and most built environments that have a history have some diversity—we’d argue that most have histories more diverse than commonly known and that part of our collective charge is uncovering those diversities and their owners.

Buki’s search for the interdependencies that make up a truly sustainable and diverse community leads him to critique both affordable housing and preservation for confusing the ends with the means. He asks “what is the role of preservation in getting us there when preservation is not the end goal, but one tool among many aimed at creating a system the chief characteristic of which is diversity?”

This is an exciting time to be in conservation writ large, especially now with the new National Trust President, Stephanie Meeks, crafting a more inclusive – diverse – vision of preservation tethered both to environmentalism and history. It isn’t just about the buildings, it is about the community, and that is why we joined Don Rypkema in calling for a rebrand: heritage conservation. For almost fifty years, we toiled in these preservation fields, and it has never been just about the buildings. More importantly, it was never just about the laws or design review or certificates of appropriateness. Community preservationists worth their salt have always treated preservation in exactly the way Buki calls for: one tool among many. Diversity is not their goal, but conserving community is.

And why does every speech to preservationists contain a plea that we have to let some buildings go? Here is how he put it:
“If you are inclined to see our post Industrial system as broken – as I do – and in need of repair and love – as I do, then you must be willing to abandon the preservation of even the most beloved stones, if the price of their rescue is the perpetuation of what’s fundamentally broken and somehow, intended or not, the kind of community amnesia paralyzing our country today”
The responses to Buki’s online posting of his speech included a few that charged preservationists with being self-righteous and of course, the hoariest chestnut of all, that preservationists want to save everything. We hear this all-too often and it’s nonsense along with being a false choice. We challenge the self-righteous preservationists without challenging the precept that most – not all – buildings are better where they are than in the landfill. It is about striking balances, complex, multi-dimensional balances to be sure, about which Buki would concur.

And it is about community and about communities’ effects on the very essence of human identity, or as Buki writes, “we are nurtured by the communities that surround us and cradled by the neighborhoods where we live” (http://www.czb.org/taxonomy_of_neighborhoods.html ) Indeed. While one of us grew up and lives in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb to end all suburbs, the other was taken home from the hospital to a new track home in Alta Loma, California, where the year before had been acres of citrus trees. Surely both places, both communities shaped us, and probably both the longevity of Oak Park and the rapidity of change along with the pain of erasure in Alta Loma had something to do with our chosen paths and philosophies. As did our choices as adults—to work dirty jobs, to get Ph.D.s, or to buy one’s first house, a modest but sturdy 1921 bungalow in a once white- but at the time mostly Latino- working-class neighborhood living with Minwax-dyed fingertips for weeks after all the cherry-colored stain had been applied to all the clear-grained redwood and Douglas fir trim and two-dozen wooden windows, and being welcomed for coffee tinged with cinnamon at the local panaderia. Or a 1906 graystone in Chicago’s Logan Square before gentrification, fixing windows, retiling bathrooms and stripping woodwork between visits to the corner Borinquen tienda. We know these actions did build community, as the acts of reclaiming, renewing, and recycling often do. Conserving historic buildings is not the activity of one culture or another, but is a polychromatic instersection of complex and diverse cultures that can help construct a broader and more inclusive future.

photo: Maravilla Historical Society

When we assert that “This Place Matters” or “ Este Lugar Es Importante,” we hope that it represents a combination of connection to place, activism, scholarship, and respectful community building based on real people and their building of places. Sometimes these important community places were built brick by brick and are taking a reinvigorated and meaningful form of community-based advocacy to save, as in the case of the Maravilla Handball Court in East Los Angeles (check it out). Saving and restoring the oldest handball court in East LA matters and as the Maravilla Historical Society, the new non-profit that has emerged to work on this effort along with the Los Angeles Conservancy, claims as its mission: “Preserving history, Protecting our stories, Reclaiming our legacy, and Projecting into the future.”

Anthea M. Hartig, PhD is Director of the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Vincent L. Michael, PhD is John Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

National Preservation Conference Austin

November 9, 2010


6th Street, Austin

Two weeks ago the National Preservation Conference began in Austin, Texas and I participated in many ways: as a presenter in an Education Session, as a participant on tours, in sessions, as a member of the National Council for Preservation Education (and outgoing Chair Emeritus) and of course as a Trustee. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the National Trust, because we have a new leader, Stephanie Meeks, whom we chose as our President this summer. You don’t have to go any farther than her speech at the Opening Plenary session to realize that there are exciting times ahead in the world of cultural heritage preservation.

Red River district, Austin, Texas

Notice her word choice: “cultural heritage conservation.” This reflects her discussion of the harmony between her role at the Trust and her years of leadership at the Nature Conservancy, but it also reflects a movement to rebrand historic preservation, which seems narrow, as heritage conservation, which is what it is called in the rest of the English-speaking world. Don Rypkema made this call last year in Nashville and he and I had articles about the topic in Forum Journal this summer (you can see my original blog on the topic here.)

State Capitol, Austin, Texas

Meeks’ speech focused on three needs: The Need to make preservation More Accessible, the Need to make preservation More Visible, and the Need for preservation to be fully funded. She described how historic buildings, sites and structures create a sense of connection that speaks to a primal human need for COMMUNITY that can be as strong as the need for shelter and sustenance. But beyond the high thoughts she had concrete proposals: expand the databases the Trust is developing on historic sites for African-American and other minority groups, since the vast majority of listed historic sites do not reflect the experiences of America’s diverse populations.

Texas two-door cottage, Clarksville, Austin

She proposed a national survey of historic sites which would build on the virally successful “This Place Matters” contest the Trust sponsored last year. That program was a model of accessibility and popular input – the winning sites were all about community and heritage, not architectural or patrician pedigree. Meeks referenced the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count as a parallel. Everyone is involved in conserving their community – that is what our movement REALLY is, not aesthetic police, not antiquarianism, not fine arts connoisseurship.

this one is from Oak Park, not Texas

Meeks’ also stressed visibility by stating that we need to “make the case” for historic preservation/heritage conservation. This has actually been the theme of my graduate Preservation Planning class since it started sixteen years ago. And in this context she made a point I have tried to make for the entirety of my professional career: we need to let people know that preservationists aren’t those saying “No!” but those providing creative solutions.

I react with great chagrin at the snickering I sometimes hear from otherwise balanced persons at a proposal to save certain buildings or groups of buildings. My chagrin stems from the fact that they see the buildings as an obstacle to redevelopment and of course I see them as an asset to redevelopment. Which is the more creative position? Who is the more creative artist – the one who faces a blank canvas, or the one who must make the art fit into the vaults and curves of a predesigned ceiling, as Michaelangelo did for Pope Julius II? In real estate development, there are a hundredfold more examples of dreck than genius built on clear sites. Working within an existing context requires an uncommon mental and artistic agility.

former Pearl Brewery, San Antonio

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks final call was for full funding of the National Historic Preservation Act, which has NEVER happened since it was passed in 1966. Even the programs started by the two previous First Ladies, Save America’s Treasures and Preserve America, are threatened.

Meeks called for the National Trust to build a movement that engaged one out of 10 Americans with cultural heritage conservation, and to move toward that goal as we come up to the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2016.

She openly dreamed about a day when it would take a (historic) football stadium to hold the plenary sessions of the National Preservation Conference. Don’t know if I will see that, but I welcome that energy and enthusiasm, a sense of which was palpable in Austin.

For more information about the National Trust, to join or sign up for next year’s conference in Buffalo, go to www.preservationnation.org.

New Leadership

June 15, 2010

Yesterday we announced the hiring of Stephanie Meeks as the eighth President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Meeks spent many years at the Nature Conservancy, eventually becoming CEO of that not-for-profit, developing formidable chops in advocacy, management, public relations and fundraising. We are genuinely excited to have a leader of this caliber and pedigree.

I think Meeks’ experience in land conservation will serve her extremely well in the arena of heritage conservation. Over the last 18 years Dick Moe has brought the National Trust into the 21st century, leading the group into the fight against sprawl, pushing beyond the four walls of stuffy house museums and antiquarian peccadillos into the streets where people lived and played. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is about saving the places that matter to people; about saving community; about planning for the future, not the past.

And then three years ago Dick Moe took the next step: he said historic preservation was about sustainability. He backed it up with a slew of facts and I was thrilled when he did it, because in an era when we care about waste of resources and the carbon footprint of our lives and homes, sustainability IS preservation. Now, Stephanie Meeks, whose career has been about saving places that matter to people and the natural environment that sustains human life, can build on this sustainable foundation. Or perhaps the better analogy is not to build but to continue to adapt and improve the National Trust “house” for the concerns and communities of the 21st century.

In Tulsa in October, Don Rypkema gave a great speech about the next 50 years of historic preservation. In it, he said straight out that the next President of the National Trust should be a woman. And here she is and I believe that the movement to conserve our built heritage will be enriched by her presence.

I wrote a blog in response to Don’s speech, and both texts will be in the next issue of Preservation Forum (Join Forum now!) and we will be doing a live chat on the topic with Forum members in late July/early August. Stay tuned!

Traditional Modernity II

March 4, 2010

Nearly five years ago I wrote about a fantastic debate on the architecture of additions to historic buildings and infill in historic districts between Steve Semes and Paul Byard. You can see the old blog here:

Paul Byard sadly passed away but Steve Semes has finally put many of his ideas about the value of traditional architecture for new construction in and around historic buildings into a new book, The Future of the Past (Norton, 2009) and he spoke and led a discussion today at SAIC. It was fascinating and stimulating and I can’t shut up about it.

His lecture asked WHY we preserve and analyzed the motives for preservation, which include the historian’s motive of buildings and places as “documents of their time,” the populist motive of “places we love and want to keep,” and the most forgotten motive of all, “to learn how to build.” That latter one has often been anathema even (especially?) in architecture schools, where creativity is seen as the opposite of context.

In this blog I have often written that it requires more creativity to deal with an existing context than to start from scratch, so I agree with Semes there. I also agree with a really important issue he brought up in regard to historicism, which is sort of the traditional 19th century concept of history: it starts, it progresses, it changes and it sort of follows a logical trajectory.

If you look at my website you know I am convinced that the beauty of history is that it doesn’t start, it doesn’t progress, and it is – like all truths – rarely pure and never simple. It is a big mess all of the time that only gets messier with time and that is its mystery and beauty. So Semes had me there as well. And here is where he makes his big point: Why in following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards do we insist on “contemporary” design for additions and infill? Why do we require architects to create a discontinuity of style between old and new?

Standard #3 requires additions and new constructions not “create a false sense of history” and Standard #9 requires additions to be compatible with the original but differentiated. Semes is upset with stark modernist additions to buildings in traditional styles, and blames it on the interpretation – and to a lesser extent the wording – of these standards. The Norman Foster example above in Manhattan is a good example of what he is fighting, and he asks – as he did 4 years ago – why don’t we allow traditionally style additions to Modernist landmarks? Fair point.

I told him I sometimes like the more contemporary additions, but he is right in his book at outlining a series of strategies for additions that range from rupture (Soldier Field) to absolutely exacting imitation (Cour Carree in the Louvre). We allow the ruptures – although we pointedly did not at Soldier Field, which lost its landmark status – more often than the continuities, says Semes.

“Tradition,” Semes notes, is a bridge between the past and the present, and culture is the tending of social life and all art forms – it is an attitude of “loving care,” quoting Hannah Arendt and should be at the center of preservation attitudes. Yet we often abandon that sense of stewardship for our expertise and modernist bias, which has affected preservation ever since it became a mass movement in the 1960s. I once asked a Landmarks Illinois founder why the group did not include the 1920 Chicago Theatre in its 1974 Inventory of Landmarks and he replied “we were all modernists.” Modernism was the handmaiden of preservation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards reflected the aesthetic movements of that time. But that time has changed. “Architecture of today” is a range of styles, most of them “traditional.”

Semes is also right about history, and we need to understand that every style is a style and every architecture is “a product of its time” because there is no single narrative. High modernism is already being revived in Dwell magazine and elsewhere, and the restoration of the Lever House is almost as much of a recreation as the reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg was 70 years ago. So what if they are different styles?


I chatted with him later about some of the foibles of high modernism, which was a very historicist movement, not in a fashion or stylistic sense, but in the Hegelian sense of seeing history as a dialectic and a narrative. High Modernism was incredibly optimistic and egoistic because they saw all of history except themselves – they had the hubristic attitude of being outside history: being its conclusion or culmination.

Semes is of the position that exaggerating the continuity of style
is preferable to exaggerating the discontinuity. I showed him this 1990s addition to Daniel Burnham Co.’s Joliet Public Library and offered that in the 1990s we started to see traditional additions to historic buildings in spite of the tendency that Semes has identified as a problem. Contextual additions are much more prevalent since 1990 than in the previous quarter-century, although Modernism is still granted a funny space outside of history even as it too has become a revival style.

I have said it before and I will say it again: you can make two mistakes in looking at the past: one is to assume that people then were smarter than now. The other is to assume they were stupider than now. The fact is they were people living a life as inchoate and contradictory and aspirational as our own, and yes they had technologies but the fact is the Tribune Tower is more technologically advanced than the Auditorium and that has nothing to do with Gothic buttresses or Romanesque arches. We tend to judge books by their covers despite all the warnings to the contrary.

I also think we need to tweak the Standards. One of my favorite quotes from Semes had to do with arguing against the Standard that tells you not to create a “false sense of historical development.” Semes responds that there is no such thing in architecture as a false sense of historic development. If it was built in 1924 and it looked like a refrigerator or a Jacobean castle or an elephant or a Renaissance manor house or a log cabin, IT WAS STILL BUILT IN 1924 really. There is no one “true” history of architecture – the 20th century was not simply the rise of modernism.

And neither does the 21st century have a singular style or singular narrative. Time does keep everything from happening all at once, but that doesn’t mean it only writes one story.

Again, I like some disruptions and I love my modernisms in all of their variety. But I also value something that we have been holding dear at the National Trust as we lean into the preservation of the recent past and modernism: a lot of pre-1930 buildings were built really well. They are more energy efficient and sustainable and durable than anything built in the second half of the 20th century and likely more durable than many buildings built today. And that is why Semes point about preserving a culture of building and preserving buildings SO WE CAN LEARN HOW TO BUILD was the most revelatory comment he made today. This not only takes us beyond the archicentric and modernist tendencies of the Venice Charter and Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – it incorporates the sense of traditional culture and traditional building and cultural definitions of significance and stewardship that have modified Venice since the Nara Document of 1994 and subsequent revisions that have made our conservation project more conservation oriented and less preservation and restoration oriented. More than simply asking us to revisit architectural standards for preservation, Steve Semes asked in his presentation and his book that we look at preservation as heritage conservation in the broadest, most ecological sense. It is not about style and it is not about rules. It is a process and it is a loving care of tradition, or whatever it is we want to label that connection every culture makes between the past and the future.

Heritage Conservation, not Historic Preservation

October 17, 2009

The final event at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville was a lunch featuring speaker Donovan Rypkema, a longtime preservation contributor whose specialty is the economics of historic preservation. Don always has numerous inspiring insights, and this presentation was no exception. His focus was preservation in 50 years, and it was a call to action that called for significant change. I agree with 99 percent of it, and here is why.

First, Don talked about the recent and virally successful “This Place Matters” photo contest which the National Trust held on its website (link on the right). The event was standard 21st century user interface: people print out “This Place Matters” signs from the Trust, and photograph them in front of places that mattered to them. Then people voted on their favorites. It was an exercise in the democracy of the built environment, and it was a revelation.

It was a revelation because, as Don pointed out, almost all of the finalists were NOT monumental buildings in the traditional sense of historic preservation. They weren’t outstanding architectural landmarks or the homes of famous people. The winner was a Humble Oil station in San Antonio, second place was a boathouse in Door County, Wisconsin and third place was a graveyard with a sailor holding the sign near a gravestone. But the effort was a huge success, because PEOPLE were deciding what PLACES mattered to them.

Don took this as a call for preservationists to reestablish the relationship between why something is important and how we preserve it. This is so true and so important. For too long, we have used curatorial procedures designed for fine art museums to determine how we treat elements of the built environment. Treating the Humble Oil station or the Door County boathouse like a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt is not necessary or even useful. There are physical elements of those properties that need to be maintained, but so does their relationship to their environment. In fact, their connection to PLACE is what is MOST IMPORTANT. It is similar to the philosophy of the historic district, where individual significance or individual artistry, elegance or craftsmanship are subservient to the whole thing. The whole thing is a PLACE, and it is what is most important.

I think we can do this, even without revising the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, although that needs to be done too. We must remember that preservation is a PROCESS, not a set of rules but a set of procedures. When we IDENTIFY something as significant, that identification should indicate WHAT about it needs to be saved. In our Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, for example, each designation report indicates WHAT the significant architectural and historic features are that need to be preserved in order to preserve the significance of the property. That list is different for every building, site or structure. As I have often said, preservation treats everything as an individual, not a category.

This is something that English Heritage in the UK already does, and indeed the English have always listed their buildings in categories based on significance. I did this 20 years ago when we surveyed historic churches in Chicago, so I understand the possibility, and I also understand the reticence preservationists had 40 years ago in doing such a ranking: because it would consign some buildings to demolition based on their low ranking.

But the point of going beyond the Rembrandt rule (treating every bit of historic fabric as if it were a Rembrandt) is to get beyond RULES and focus on PROCESS. Preserving a great design done in a short-lived material might mean re-creation, because the design is what is important, whereas for the Star-Spangled banner, the material artifact is primary. House museums need to go beyond the Rembrandt rule for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that some artifacts may be Rembrandts but others are not.

Rypkema talked about the need for more land-use tools beyond the historic district, which is true, and conservation districts and buffer districts and heritage areas (which involve no necessary regulation) are examples we can build on. We need these because preservation IS NOT ABOUT FIXING SOMETHING IN A CERTAIN PERIOD OF TIME. It is, instead, ABOUT MANAGING CHANGE OVER TIME.

The rest of the English-speaking world does not have historic preservation. They have building conservation, or more broadly and appropriately, HERITAGE CONSERVATION. Most of the National Preservation Honor Awards we gave out Thursday night were about heritage conservation, not historic preservation of buildings as museums. This is not a new direction, it is what we are already doing. But we may need to rename it.

To preserve means to fix at a point in time – in effect, to remove something from history. I began my preservation career nearly 27 years ago by helping create the first heritage area, and our goal then, and now, was managing change, not stopping change. Heritage conservation is about managing change – planning – based on the inherited culture and cultural artifacts of a place. It is about the individuality and uniqueness of place. What we do is follow a process that insures that change happens in concert with a place’s values and valuables. I am extremely privileged to be able to be a part of this.

images from nashville:

downtown pres fac
downtown pres int det2
EOA church office9
union stn int1
union stn extb
Frist detail4
plaque parking
Ryman
christ episcopal0
hermitage hot men's


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